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Why Can't Anyone Agree How Many Mass Shootings There Have Been In 2013?

Making sense of the competing statistics

If you've been following the news in the wake of the Washington Navy Yard massacre, you might be hopelessly confused about how frequently mass shootings happen in the United States. The Huffington Post reports that there have been at least 16 mass shootings this year so far, killing a total of 78 people. Mother Jones, on the other hand, has updated its much-cited "Guide to Mass Shootings" with the news that the Navy Yard murders were "the fifth mass shooting in the United States this year." An article by Annie Linsky at Bloomberg doesn't offer a count for 2013, but it does stress how rare such crimes are. That Huffington Post piece, by contrast, talks about how "common" mass shootings have "become."

As you might have guessed, different reporters are using different definitions of "mass shooting." We've waded through this thicket of competing numbers before, and if you want to get into the statistical weeds I can point you to a couple of posts I wrote last year, "Are Mass Shootings Becoming More Common in the United States?" and "Making Sense of Mass-Shooting Statistics." Here's the key points to remember as you read the numbers floating around in the press:

• The simplest definition of a mass shooting is a gun crime in which at least four people other than the shooter are killed. Over the decades the number of these murders has zig-zagged up and down without a discernable pattern. This chart stops in 2010, so it doesn't cover the last few years, but it should get across what I mean:

James Alan FoxJames Alan Fox

This seems to be the definition that The Huffington Post is using. As you can see, their numbers for 2013 are not drastically different from the figures we've seen stretching back into the Ford era (though of course we don't know what will happen in the next three months). It is thus misleading to treat that data as a sign of how "common" such incidents have "become." (I should note as well that the chart above covers raw numbers, not incidents or casualties per capita. U.S. population has grown considerably since 1976.)

• The chief objection to that definition is that when people hear "mass shooting" they think of random shootings in public places, not just any slaying involving multiple bodies and a gun. If you read past the infographic in the Huffington Post story and look at the details of the crimes, you'll find a drug deal gone wrong, a husband who shot his wife and then started killing witnesses, and several other sad stories, but very few events that resemble the Newtown or Navy Yard murders. Hence the lower figure from Mother Jones.

That said, Mother Jones' definition is a somewhat jerry-rigged thing that has been criticized harshly for its inconsistencies and exceptions. (See Michael Siegel's critique here and James Alan Fox's critique here.) A better source is Grant Duwe, a criminologist at the Minnesota Department of Corrections, who keeps a count of mass shootings that take place in public and are not a byproduct of some other felony. (He would not, for example, include a robber who shoots several people while sticking up a store.) While Mother Jones presented a portrait of a steadily increasing social problem, Duwe's figures show more incidents than usual in 2012 but an ongoing decline from 1999 to 2011. He does not have an ongoing count to offer for 2013 -- he assembles his figures annually, not monthly or weekly -- but he tells me that the last time there was a sudden spike in incidents, back in 1999, the following years saw a regression to the mean; he hopes the same will be true following 2012. (As do we all, as do we all.)

[Update: A reader just informed me of another definition that's being used by an anti-gun community on Reddit -- one that's broader rather than narrower than the Huffington Post piece's approach. The thinking there is that a "mass shooting" need not involve four or more dead people, just four or more people struck by bullets. They list a larger number of incidents for 2013, which shouldn't be surprising: If you count more, you're gonna count more. (Using their approach, for example, this story about a limo driver returning fire at some would-be thieves qualifies as a mass shooting.) They don't have data for past years, so they don't have a trendline we can compare to the trendlines for the other definitions.]

• The most important thing to know about mass-shooting stats is the point Linsky made in her Bloomberg piece: They account for just a tiny fraction of American murders. The larger murder rate is a much more important trend. And the news on that front is mostly good.

The FBI has just released its crime statistics for 2012. The bad news is that the murder rate for that year was 0.4 percent higher than the rate for the year before. The good news is that the murder rate was nonetheless 12.8 percent lower than where it was half a decade ago. Something similar has happened with violent crimes in general: There were slightly more of them in 2012 than in 2011, but the rate stayed essentially the same as the previous year and was far less than it was back in 2008. It has been steadily dropping, in fact, since the early 1990s.

So the long-term trend has been toward less violence, even if it feels like you're seeing more violence on TV. That isn't much consolation for the people who lost loved ones at the Navy Yard. But you should bear it in mind if you spot any politicians stampeding toward the carnage with tough-on-crime talking points on their lips and hastily written bills in their fists.

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  • UnCivilServant||

    I don't think anyone has shot up a congregation this year, so we haven't had any Mass shootings.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    He'll be here all week folks.

  • UnCivilServant||

    Here I was thinking no one read my posts.

    Thanks Scruffy.

  • ||

    Oh Jesse, "mass shooting" means whatever the media scum want it to mean to grind whatever ideological axe they have to grind. That's why you have to wade through various definitions. That's why they call grown men teenagers. That's why they willfully get gun details wrong. It's all in the service of whatever agenda they wish to push. If you listen to any of it without truckloads of salt, you are a retard. Actually, just listening to it is pretty much retarded.

  • radar||

    And it's why they are pathologically obsessed with AR-15s.

  • ||

    An AR-15 stole my baby!

  • Neoliberal Kochtopus||

    "A lie goes 'round the world while truth's still putting its boots on, sweetheart."

  • Mainer2||

    An Ar-15 turned me into a newt.

  • WTF||

    Did you get better?

  • Michael Price||

    Well we did do the flash suppressor and the pistol grip ... but it is an AR-15.

  • ||

    I was pretty much thinking the same thing. Motherjones WANTS to believe mass shootings are on the rise because they have an ideology to sell.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    Someone, possibly in one of Jesse's links, pointed out that limiting mass murders to 4 eliminated a whole bunch of public mass murders where an ordinary bloke with a gun stopped the spree before it got to four. If you look at spree killings which were random strangers, not families, not drug deals, etc, which were stopped by someone else, not by the gunman running away, most police-stopped killings were well over four; most civvie-stopped killings were 2 or 3.

    That's one reason they use the four limit, it makes police look necessary and makes civilian guns look dangerous.

  • Jgalt1975||

    Wow, paranoid much? The HuffPo post specifically says it used four or more deaths for its definition of "mass shooting" because of the FBI's use of four or more deaths to define "mass murder".

    That said, I don't know when exactly the FBI definition of "mass murder" was coined, but it was definitely prior to June 16, 1991 because I remember learning about the "four or more deaths = mass murder" thing in connection with coverage of the United Bank massacre.

  • Jgalt1975||

    Shoot, SF'd the links. Take the spaces out of these to get them to work.

    fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/ serial-murder/serial-murder-1#two

    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Father's_Day_Bank_Massacre

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    Paranoid my ass. When an anti-gun magazine spins and cherry picks statistics to buttress their point of view that civilian guns are useless at best and actually bad, that's not paranoia.

    I can't quickly find the analysis I saw, but it was quite clear. If you look at all shootings where the victims and shooter were strangers in all ways, not drug deals, not family, not robberies, and where the shooter was stopped by someone else instead of emptying a magazine and leaving, only one out of several dozen civilian-stopped shootings met the lower limit of 4, and it was four exactly. All others were under, with an average somewhere between 2 and 3. All police-stopped spree killings averaged something over 10.

    So stuff your paranoia accusation into a shoebox and send it to Hallmark.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    Here you are

    The average number of people killed in mass shootings when stopped by police is 14.29

    The average number of people killed in a mass shooting when stopped by a civilian is 2.33

    ...

    What remained was 32 cases of gunmen firing indiscriminately whose rampage was cut short through the intervention of either a civilian or a police officer.
  • ||

    There's a couple or few things that I'm trying to wrap my head around here. Are you saying they should count among the victims people who might have been killed but weren't when "an ordinary bloke with a gun stopped the spree" (aka "the gun owner's wet dream")? Would you figure that the murderer could have killed only as many people as he had bullets? Or that depending on the firearm he could have taken out more than one per shot provided he stacked the victims properly? And how often has it happened that the schlub with a gun has ended a mass shooting? And wouldn't adding these incidents into the total also give more ammo, so to speak, to the Mother Jones in your head that you so fear?

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    You ever try thinking?

    Drug deals gone bad, robberies, family murder.suicides, those are not random spree killings. The people targeted are specific in number, and once shot, there is no need to keep shooting.

    Therefore if you want to compare how well civilians and police stop spree killings you have to only include those which ended because someone else stopped the killings.

    Is that simple enough for step 1?

    Step 2 is to notice that it is cherry picking to ignore anyone who comes to a mall ready to kill as many as possible, but is stopped before he kills very many, or even any.

    Therefore when Mother Jones, or the FBI, or anyone, ignores all spree killings below four, they are packing the stats. And when the stats clearly show that civilians stop mass murderers far sooner than police, it is biased cherry picking of the worst sort to ignore them.

    If that isn't clear enough, you are willfully blind and ignorant.

  • ||

    I have tried thinking. I am trying it right now and my conclusion is that you are upset that not everyone is using statistics to push the same agenda as you.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    Think on answering the response you asked for . Go ahead and show where that guy got his study wrong amd Mother Jones got it right.

    Hint: any reliance on the FBI will ne laughed out of town without further justification.

  • ||

    It's kind of arbitrary how one chooses to define mass shootings and then collect stats on them. How you choose to define is in large part decided by what you're trying to prove.

  • Libertymike||

    Do the FBI stats take into account each and every act of violence perpetrated by goons with guns and badges?

    Given the number of daily incidents in which some clown costumed thug assaults, rapes, tazes or murders an individual or dog, we should not buy the "violence is going down" narrative - particularly when you factor in the violence committed by all state actors, including that of the jarheads, drone operators and spooks.

    Thus, when discussing the level of violence, one should always caution that it is just retarded to view the FBI stats as an authoritative source.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Do the FBI stats take into account each and every act of violence perpetrated by goons with guns and badges?

    Not unless they're consequently convicted of a crime. So mostly no.

  • Neoliberal Kochtopus||

    Police rape dogs? That's a new one.

  • Libertymike||

    Well, now you know.

    See, first they mount Lassie then scream, "STOP RESISTING, STOP RESISTING" before tazing and / or murdering her.

  • Free Society||

    One time I got pulled over and a cop asked me to hand over my pistol so that he could feel safe while he writes me a ticket. I told him that he should give me his gun, since I'm way more likely to be unjustifiably shot by a cop than he is to be shot by a CCW permit holder.

  • #||

    Howed that go over?

  • ||

    So someone posted this on facebook indicating that the last 6 years have been worse than the past 50 years combined, but apparently Maddow is looking at "the 12 worst shootings in U.S. history, in which 12 people or more were killed and shows that the first six span 50 years, but the second six span just the last six years."

    Which ends up showing up on Facebook as mass shootings worse the past 6 years, what's wrong with America!?!?!

  • ||

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    You can't make me click that. nyah nyah

  • some guy||

    If you are trying to draw meaningful conclusions from a sample size of 12 then you need to have your statistics license revoked.

  • ||

    Low foreheads like Maddow don't even know what "statistics" means. They know ball...and good...and BAN.

  • Neoliberal Kochtopus||

    But...but...RHODES SCHOLAR!

  • Loki||

    There's lies, damn lies, and statistics. Just further evidence that anyone can take any data and torture it enough to fit a narrative, and then get other morons to believe whatever bullshit they're peddling.

  • Major Johnson||

    Something they fail to mention, during the period they cite as being mass murder free (comparatively) gun laws were far less restrictive. You could mail order a machine gun until '38, guns were easy to purchase at pretty much any age, legal to carry and widely available (sold at a hardware store near you!).

  • #||

    Also the population is a lot bigger now that it used to be, about double now of what it was in 1950.

    So it doesn't look like the rate of shootings per capita has gone up, even with this only 12 datapoint sample.

  • Paul.||

    Hockey Stick!

  • ||

    Is it a Sher-Wood?

  • The Late P Brooks||

    It's almost as if each incident is a unique outlier event. Tough to get the narrative to accept that, though.

  • sarcasmic||

    Unique outliers can't honestly be used justify draconian legislation, so the narrative must dishonestly portray these events as commonplace.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Too many. Or possibly not enough, depending on your thoughts on population control.

  • anon||

    Ehrlich's euthanasia boner is probably only at 1/4 mast.

  • UnCivilServant||

    We've had the wrong types of incidents. Not enough took place inside legislative assemblies.

  • anon||

    Say hi to the FBI for me.

  • UnCivilServant||

    Are they currently responsible for thoughtcrime?

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    Yep

  • Neoliberal Kochtopus||

    I have little beef with my state assembly. They're doing alright (now that they've taken a hard right turn).

  • UnCivilServant||

    I would like to point out that I live in New York.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    Looking for the pity vote eh? Oh well, alright...

    You poor bastard.

  • UnCivilServant||

    No, that fact explains my distain for my state legislature.

  • Neoliberal Kochtopus||

    *looks around nervously for Epi*

    Ha ha!

  • Marc F Cheney||

    You can't graph my feelings!

  • ||

    even if it feels like you're seeing more violence on TV.

    The number of violent crimes I have seen depicted on my TV has increased by 90000% since last week.

    In unrelated news GTA V was released a few days ago.

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